Lucretius and Philip Larkin Talk about Death

I hadn’t read Philip Larkin’s stunning poem Aubade until Sissela Bok quoted it in her post about Seamus Heaney. I found Larkin’s evocation of the fear of death especially chilling. What terrifies him is a vision of nothingness, not any belief in an afterlife of torment:

The mind blanks at the glare.

Not in remorse…

But at the total emptiness for ever,

The sure extinction that we travel to

And shall be lost in always.

Not to be here,   

Not to be anywhere,

And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

The poet refuses to be talked out of his terror. He dismisses religion as “a vast moth-eaten musical brocade/Created to pretend we never die.” But he directs his strongest firepower against efforts to persuade us that fear of death is not rational:

And specious stuff that says No rational being

Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing

That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,   

No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,   

Nothing to love or link with,

The anaesthetic from which none come round.

I’m not a literary scholar, but I’m guessing that Larkin’s “adversary” here is Lucretius. In book 3 of De Rerum Natura (On the nature of things) Lucretius makes a famous argument about why we should not fear death. Here’s John Dryden’s translation of the “specious stuff” that Larkin finds so unpersuasive in its effort “to pretend we never die”:

 WHAT has this Bugbear Death to frighten Man,

If Souls can die, as well as Bodies can?

For, as before our Birth we felt no Pain…

 So, when our mortal frame shall be disjoyn’d,

The lifeless Lump uncoupled from the mind,

From sense of grief and pain we shall be free;

We shall not feel, because we shall not Be.

And since the Man who Is not, feels not woe,

(For death exempts him and wards off the blow,

Which we, the living, only feel and bear)

What is there left for us in Death to fear?

Larkin and Lucretius are in a kind of dialogue about how we humans should contemplate death. Neither believes in an existence after death within which one might be punished or rewarded. Both envisage death as a blank nothingness. In relation to ourselves, when we’re dead we simply aren’t. There’s no “me.” But despite their fundamental agreement about what death is, they’re in utter opposition about how we should respond.

Their “dialogue” reminded me of experiences in my psychiatric practice. Sometimes when I applied cognitive therapy techniques, which involve challenging “faulty beliefs” that underlie depression and anxiety, patients railed against what they saw as arid intellectualization (“specious stuff”). Like a cognitive therapist, Lucretius is reasoning about death. He points out that since we’re not horrified by our non-existence before birth, why should we be horrified by non-existence after death? And given that there’s no post-mortem self to experience death, it makes no sense to be afraid. He’s making a logical “refutation” of our fear.

But fear isn’t a logical argument. Larkin doesn’t use logic to “refute” Lucretius. He escalates the horror that death evokes. For Larkin, emotion trumps reason. For Lucretius, reason trumps emotion.

In clinical work, there’s no surefire resolution of the conflict between reason and emotion. If Philip Larkin were a depressed patient, a skillful therapist might step back to explore the recalcitrant emotions, as by asking “what is most horrifying about no sensation/no thought/no love?” Sometimes a deeper understanding of the emotions ultimately alleviates the symptom(s) being worked on. A patient in a group I led, who suffered from chronic pain, put it this way: “The pain in my back hasn’t changed, but it causes much less suffering now.”

But sometimes no form of interaction is effective. That’s when “physical” interventions like medications may be crucial. In my own experience I had patients who, after taking antidepressant medication, said, “I don’t see the world differently than I did before, but it doesn’t make me depressed/anxious any more.”

For me the “dialogue” between Larkin and Lucretius supports the movement to use literature in health professional education. The two poets embody the alternative ways in which those who do not believe in an afterlife (according to a Pew Forum survey, 74% of U.S. adults do believe in life after death!) can think about death. If it fits into the curriculum for the medical ethics class I’ll teach again this spring, I’ll give the students Aubade and excerpts from Lucretius and ask them – who do you agree with, and why?

James Sabin, M.D., 74, is an organizer of Over 65, a clinical professor of population medicine and psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and a Fellow of the Hastings Center.






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